Pakistan Confronts Deepening Radicalism in Wake of Assassination

By Sarah A Topol for AOL News

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — When Vice President Joe Biden made his surprise visit to Pakistan this week to shore up the battle against the Taliban and al-Qaida, he warned against the implications of increasing radicalism in Pakistani society in light of the assassination of a liberal governor by his bodyguard.

“The governor was killed simply because he was a voice of tolerance and understanding,” Biden said at a news conference Wednesday. “As you know all too well … societies that tolerate such actions end up being consumed by those actions.”

But when President Barack Obama meets Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari later today in Washington to discuss counter-terrorism in Pakistan’s lawless frontier, he greets a president facing a new fight against radicalism deep in the heart of Pakistan’s urban centers.

Since Mumtaz Qadri unloaded over two-dozen bullets into Salmaan Taseer’s back because the outspoken liberal called the country’s blasphemy laws a “black law,” ecstatic crowds have flocked to shower Qadri with rose petals at his court appearances. Facebook fan pages and a fawning YouTube video cropped up within hours of the murder.

The glorification of a confessed killer by the masses has shocked the country’s small liberal minority. But most troubling has been the reaction of Pakistan’s urban middle class, whose support the United States needs in its war against terror and against the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.

From lawyers to tech-savvy Web users, the reaction of the educated middle class has most clearly illuminated the toehold that Islamic extremists have found when it comes to religious issues in Pakistan, even as the country continues to resist the allure of Islamic militants. Some see the reaction of the middle class as the expression of latent social outrage over how Islam is treated by the West, combined with a growing confusion over how to follow their faith in the modern world. This dormant indignation has found an outlet in the murder of a liberal governor.

“Taseer is a victim of religious extremism, but this religious extremism is wrapped up in a class and culture war, between the have-nots and the have, between the socially disposed and the possessors of society, between the globally connected and the globally disconnected,” Mosharraf Zaidi, a political analyst and policy development adviser in Islamabad, told AOL News.

Zaidi sees the convergence of educated Muslims around Qadri as a sign of confusion among the middle class over how to rationalize their modern lifestyle with Islamic tenets, prompting them to defer to radical right-wing mullahs when it comes to certain religious issues, like blasphemy.

“The Islamic narrative in Pakistan is dominated by a small religious establishment who has no viability electorally and who has limited social appeal. But on a number of specific issues they’re able to tap into something much deeper than what’s apparent in a day-to-day situation that awakens the inner radical,” Zaidi said. “The middle class is increasingly susceptible to the symbolism of the little guy taking on the big guy.”

Among Qadri’s most stalwart supporters are some of the same jurists who staged months of protests against Pakistan’s military dictator in 2007 and 2008, when Gen. Pervez Musharraf removed the country’s chief justice.

“We were supporting rule of law, the supremacy of the constitution and the independence of the judiciary,” said Mohammad Faisal Malik, who notes he was an active participant in the movement. “It was the most memorable year of my life.”

Dressed in a dapper black suit, Malik has a neat mustache and carefully styled sideburns that don’t suggest a picture of extremism taking root in Pakistan’s judicial system. But today he is among the group of lawyers who have been throwing garlands and chanting slogans in support of Qadri outside the district courthouse in Rawalpindi, and he is also one of the 500 lawyers signed on to represent Qadri.

Malik does not see a contradiction in supporting both the rule of law and a man who took the law into his own hands.

“Mr. Qadri reacted under certain provocation, feeling hurt from the remarks of the deceased governor. He acted like any Muslim will act when anyone uses filthy language against our prophet. … We were chanting and raising slogans against all those sectors that are using objectionable language against Muslims, against our holy prophet and against our religion. That was our message,” Malik explains in nearly flawless English, expressing a sense of global victimhood common among his compatriots.

In Pakistan, the day-to-day injustices in an impoverished society find no legal outlet. Corruption here is rife, and the rich can bribe their way out of anything. The lawyers supporting Qadri express an understanding of why the security guard picked up a gun.

“He took the law into his own hands when he thought he was helpless. He’s not in a position to initiate criminal proceedings against Mr. Taseer, so he reacted in this manner,” Malik said.

But some say the passivity of the educated class toward radical strains is not merely a product of a class and culture struggle but part of a larger generational gap in Pakistani society. Under the rule of Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s, Pakistan underwent an Islamization campaign as the military dictator sought to unify the country and encourage jihadists to fight against Indian control of Kashmir and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Today, some suggest, the younger generation is the product of state-sponsored radicalization.

“The state as a machinery is supporting and promoting religious extremism, and it happens through various means. It happens through media messages, it happens through textbooks,” said Marvi Sirmed, a human rights activist and blogger.

“The literate, quasi-educated urban population is the most vulnerable to these extremist propagandas, because they are exposed to electronic media and the outside world through social networking,” Sirmed said. “And I see a lot of stuff coming out through these sources that if you are naive, they can make you a suicide bomber very easily.”

It is this middle class, struggling with its faith in an age of global media and inter-connectivity, that the U.S. needs to win over, and it is precisely this sector it appears to be losing.

Pakistan’s middle class sees the United States not as a model of liberal values to be followed but rather as a country that inflicts repeated indignities upon Pakistanis’ culture and sense of worth with its military forays into the region in the past 10 years.

“We have to pay attention to the narrative of indignity, because it’s fueling things that start only as rhetorical and verbal but could very well link to Faisal Shahzad’s Nissan Pathfinder,” said Zaidi, referring to the failed Times Square bomber, an educated Pakistani who knew the United States only too well.

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